Stemmed, but Branching

If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.
        —Michael Crichton

“Did you know,” asked my brother Sean, “that our great-grandfather died in a poor house?”

Sean had been to visit our uncle, Joe, our father’s much-younger brother, and Uncle Joe had been sharing family history facts that maybe weren’t so well-known. Some were about endearing personality quirks. But—a poor house? That was a little more serious. That smacked of Dickens and gray Gothic grimness. Our great-grandfather had living children, after all–our grandfather among them. How, in his final years, did he wind up in an institution for people who had hit rock-bottom, who had absolutely nowhere else to go?

Then I thought I remembered that the county home–the ‘old folks home’–in the county where Sean and I grew up had once been the poor house. It struck me that maybe the poor house had once been the place where the elderly were sent when their families could not care for them. Behind this ruminating is a hope that maybe things were not so bad there.

This week, I’m going to learn as much as I can about poor houses in western New York State in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It seems like something I need to understand. Because the fact of our great-grandfather’s institutionalization has some sort of impact on all of us. Having consigned his father to an institution, for instance, it may have been easier for our grandfather to place his own children in orphanages when their mother died.

My father’s years in Father Baker’s Home for Children surely shaped the man he became. We could see it, for example, in the melancholy that descended before the holidays,–a kind of yearning for something long denied. The reality of Christmas always seemed, ultimately, to chase away the sadness, but at that time of year, my mother would warn us not to push our father.

“It’s hard for him,” she would say. “He has an image of an unattainable perfect holiday in his head.”

It’s funny. When the December holidays approach, I always get a whiff of that as we prepare for Christmas–of the idea that other people are enjoying a perfect, harmonious, color-swirled, music-filled extravaganza. That my poor family is getting, somehow, a shorter stick than the others drawing in this competition. And then it dissipates in the brisk breeze of intrigue and baking and shopping and get-togethers with friends and family.

I wonder how my child-father felt about his grandpa being in the poor house. Was there shame and sadness; were those feelings renewed when he crossed through the orphanage gates to become a resident? Or was there relief in knowing there was safety, there was a warm bed and food on the table, and the wolf, for a while, was at bay?

My father is long gone–gone thirty years ago–and it is too late to ask him those questions. But it’s not too late to feel the impact of his thoughts and emotions–to be touched by the actions of others in generations before me.


We were a little full of ourselves when Mark completed the law school years and we struck out into a brand new town, into brand new territory.

“Look at us! Aren’t we daring?”

It was a wonderful time, full of growth and revelation, the forging of new relationships, the refining of beliefs and values. We evolved, because necessity demanded it, new definitions of home and the meaning of work in our lives, of family and of friendship, of where and how we fit into a community, and of what we owed the place that stretched and morphed to let us in.

We felt sometimes, I think, like we had invented the concept of the daring move to a brand new place.

And then one day it occurred to me that my parents had done much the same thing. And that our grandparents had been much, much bolder. Imagine Mark’s grandparents leaving Italy as young people in their late teens, striking out for a country where they didn’t even speak the lingua franca. Imagine my mother’s folks pulling up roots in Scotland, packing up babies and the few family heirlooms they could stuff into the limited luggage they could bring, and boarding a ship to an unknown city.

Maybe bold moves were part of our heritage, and maybe our move was much safer and far less thrilling than those of the people who’d that had gone before.

It was a humbling realization. Along with it came this: I might understand myself better if I understood my history better.


We hired some wonderful folks to paint our house this summer; yesterday, they put up the last shutter, and we all went out front, painters and inhabitants, and snapped cell phone photos. The transformation was striking.

Our neighbor Sandy has lived in her house for 16 years; it’s the first time, she says, the little house has been painted during that time.

Sixteen years ago, we wouldn’t have called Young Ministers Painting; sixteen years ago, we would have painted the house ourselves. Time and knees and energy have changed that situation.

But we did commit to painting the garage, the car port and the long fence that borders our backyard. And as we plunge into those jobs, we are learning something about the place in which we live and its history.

“Look at this,” Mark will say. “Why did they do it like this?” And he’ll get out a legal pad, sketch a new plan, because the way of hanging the door, or the way the wires are run, suits a need long-filled and gone. But pondering that need tells us something about the family who lived here before us. We consider whether the little garage was kind of a potting shed for the couple who lived here for many, many years; they  were, neighbors and friends tell us, great gardeners. He grew the blooms; she arranged them creatively; they marched away with high honors from the county fair each year.

Knowing that, we look at the way the garage functions and think maybe we understand a little bit.

And standing at the garage wall and scraping is a literal act of peeling back the years. The garage was many colors before it reached sage green. It was creamy white and brick-red. It was never, as far as these layers tell us, Seriously Gray, which it’s becoming now. This color choice is new to us, new to the house, a new chapter in neighborhood history.

Acknowledging that we’ll never reach their level of horticultural excellence frees us to re-imagine the garage as a space for something else, and Mark builds shelves and re-wires the electric and moves his chop saw into the space.


There was a rectangular hole in the dining room floor right under where the table would practically go that puzzled us when we moved in. We pointed it out to our friend Susan.

She said, “That’s probably where the button to call the maid was.”

The maid! Mark and I looked at each other; this was a revelation about the family who’d lived here before us, and about the times they had lived in. Mark cut a piece of plywood and filled the void. We laid down an area rug and answer only each other’s summons for kitchen fare.

Knowing a little of the house’s history informs us; we understand, then, how and why things are configured. I honor those former habits. At that same time, knowing those practices are gone frees us to change the flow, to make the place our own.


My understanding of local history is hazy but growing clearer. This city was once two towns. The Civil War highlighted their differences.

In what was once Putnam, fiery abolitionists brought blazing orators to town, smuggled escaped slaves from hidey-holes to furtive river launches, defied their more conservative neighbors who gathered with torches and outcry. This side of the river, folks recall, was populated by people with different politics, people who upheld the status quo.

New research reveals that some of those folks were working behind a facade; Underground Railroad operatives did not hang ‘welcome’ signs by their front gate or leave diaries about their illicit and illegal acts of daring and kindness.

Devastating flood waters surged over both areas in the early 1900’s, and city planners with foresight and good communication limited loss of life and property–people knew, for instance, to turn off their kerosene lamps as the waters filled their living spaces. In that crisis, the two disparate parts of the city worked together. Those waters, some say, may have washed away some of the invisible walls separating people from the two areas.

But the long-ago distinctions between the two areas, now parts of one unified city, still have some impact; one can still see hazy outlines of those borders in the way some things are done.

It helps to delve into the history of your town.

The alchemy of realizing the history of family, home, and place works, I suspect, kind of magic.

Maybe it’s time of life; maybe it’s the fact of retirement and the flexibility to explore the unexplained puzzles of family life. Maybe it’s the transformation of the house, the change of the seasons, the surfacing of information. Probably it’s a confluence of all of these things.

But I am struck, more and more, by the need to embrace the present–to live fully and mindfully in this moment. There’s an imperative need, I think, regarding my son, 27 years old and disabled, to plan carefully for the future.

But there is a need, too, to understand the past, to come to grips with the forces and the wisdom and the ignorance, the faults and the talents, the mistakes and the triumphs, and the mundane habits of everyday life,–my own and those of people before me–that have brought me to where I am.

So this week, I will contribute in a small way to a community forum, with a wonderful, well-known speaker, on drug addiction and recovery–a present day plague whose roots we certainly need to understand. I’ll work on grants, and try to finalize reports for some community activities; I’ll get ready for meetings and take the boyo to get leeched at the hospital lab.  I will bake lemon bars and I will shop for a pair of decent shoes, and I will follow a deep-seated, genetically imparted schedule, and change beds on Friday, mop floors on Saturday, cook up a fine family dinner on Sunday afternoon.

I’ll scrape the garage and help Mark paint.

And in the nooks and the crannies, I’ll explore. I have some local history research to do for a project in October–I need to track down some area lore and contemplate the impact on a forgotten local star who fascinates me. It will broaden my hazy understanding of local history–maybe opening some doors.

And I need to find out: What were poor houses back in the day? Were they the joyless, soul-sucking concrete asylums my imagination suggests, or was there comfort there? Why would a grown child consign an aging parent to such a place? I need a more complete understanding to assimilate the idea of my great-grandfather ending his days in that kind of a setting.

I want to know. I don’t want to be a leaf separated from its tree. I want to gain the whole picture, to understand the currents that swirled before and the eddies I navigate now.

And I want to be able to determine, at least in small part, which way the future will flow.


A Slippery Grasp on History

We were in Buffalo, New York;  we had a little extra time after our last museum exploration–after standing in the room where Teddy Roosevelt was inaugurated as president, hearing the sonorous, recorded voices of re-enactors creating the scene for us–and before we were due at the Blackthorn Restaurant and Pub for dinner.

“Hey,” I said, “I wonder where Perkins Place is.”

I pulled it up on my cell phone. The house–29 Perkins Street–was only six minutes away. I hit ‘go’ on the directions tab, and Siri took over. Mark followed her instructions, and suddenly we were there, stopped on a skinny, cluttered street, avoiding the eyes of gaunt and angry-looking people who stood in their front yards, arms crossed, and stared at our idling car.

It was a small house next to its neighbors, with a kind of faded taupe siding. The windows were boarded with wood gone gray. The aging plywood over the door sported a garish, spray-painted, red ’29.’ The tiny front yard was littered with cigarette butts and bunched-up papers and shards of plastic grocery bags.

We sat in silence for a minute, and then Jim took his ear buds out and asked, “What is this place?”

“This,” I said, “is where my mother lived when she met my father.”

“Yikes,” said Jim, and he put the buds back in his ears and looked away.


“The first time I met your mother,” my father often said, “she was on her hands and knees, scrubbing the kitchen floor.”

He was working then,–at a dockyard, I think,–with a couple of Scottish boys named Innes. And one night they brought him home to the house they shared with their siblings. And there my father met my mother, who was indeed, she would always agree when the story was told, washing the kitchen floor.

He was in his early twenties; she was right out of high school. It must have been just about 1940. They had both lost one parent to death and the other to one kind or another of abandonment. They were each one of seven siblings, although my father knew his seven half-siblings, too. My mother’s father had disappeared, and she wouldn’t realize she had half-siblings herself until after his death, twenty-five years later.

The details of what happened after that first introduction are sketchy. Was it love at first sight? Was there wooing and pursuit? Did one shy away while the other knew–just knew, bone-deep,–that this, THIS one, was the partner for a lifetime?

Whatever, however, the die was cast in that moment of meeting, and a love, a partnership, a bond was forged–one that would shudder from, but survive, war and separation and unimaginable loss. I trace my history back to that moment.

And the sadness of that blank-eyed, neglected little home tumbled that history toward me.


“I feel,” said a new colleague not so very long ago, “as if this was meant to be.” She had stumbled on just the right opportunity at just the right time, she said, applied, breezed through the interviews. She’d gotten a job doing exactly what she hoped to be doing at this point in her professional life.

“I believe that,” said someone else. “I believe things happen when they’re meant to happen, that someone is watching out for us.” People around the table nodded solemnly.

I smiled and kept quiet.  I am not so sure fate is quite that settled. What becomes history has so many variables. The storm clouds could have lingered, the game been postponed, and then the home run–well, it might never have happened.

Maybe that stupendous success was a simple matter of placement in line, or of what big-shot the family happened to know.

What might have happened if, say, they’d decided to take the long way ’round instead on that memorable day?

What if, what if, what if.

What if Dad hadn’t gone home with those particular buddies–if he had gone instead to another friend’s house, met another friend’s family? What if he’d gone to a bar that night, had one too many, gotten into a fight? Would the moment of meeting have just been postponed, the introduction taken place at another, later day, and the forging of that partnership begun as it was meant to, just a little further down the line?

Or could life have been completely different?

History is slippery, I think, not iron-cast.


The story teller at the Theodore Roosevelt memorial site told us that Teddy had been very concerned for the widowed first lady. President McKinley had died of gunshot wounds inflicted by Leon Czolgosz in September 1901 at the Pan American Exhibition in Buffalo. (And what if Czolgosz had never gotten close enough? What if someone bumped him in line and felt his gun, or what if his trolley had been late?) McKinley was laid in state in another Buffalo mansion, and government officials hurried to find Teddy, who was staying with his friends, the Wilcoxes.

Those  officials wanted him to come back to the house where McKinley lay and be inaugurated immediately, but Teddy said no. First, he said, he would go and pay his respects to the slain President, and to Mrs. McKinley.

Then he would come back and be sworn in as president at the Wilcox mansion. He did not want to deflect from the solemn vigil at the other house with an inauguration.

So they did it Teddy’s way: respectful, solemn, considerate of a widow’s feelings and the concerns of a nation.

But it didn’t have to happen like that. I think of photos of Lyndon Johnson being sworn in on a plane, Jackie Kennedy propped beside him, glazed and grieving in her blood-spattered suit. Johnson insisted on that in-flight inauguration, they say, on having the slain Kennedy’s widow by his side, and he wouldn’t wait for a different venue.

If he had insisted from the beginning on respecting Mrs. Kennedy’s grief would Johnson’s presidency have started–and continued–entirely differently? Or would it have been the act of a different man to defer to a widow’s public, aching sorrow?

Whatever. Both TR and Johnson, I think, were controversial, but one was also wildly popular, and the other widely vilified.

There were many other variables in their presidencies, of course, but so much history, so much understanding, pivots on a choice. And choices, once made, cannot be undone.


It could always have been different. What if someone hadn’t forgotten to set the alarm, if the weather had changed, if a person had acted altruistically instead of selfishly? There is a literature built on this, on what life might have been like, say, if the South had won the Civil War, if Kennedy had not died. If the kick had been good. If the verdict had been different.

When things work out just perfectly,–when we get the job, meet the man by happenstance, pick up the lottery ticket at just the right time and place,–we feel, sometimes, as if we were chosen by fate, singled out for blessing: beneficiaries of what was meant to be.

And then what-ifs are the stuff from which we weave regrets. If only I’d kept my mouth shut! If only I’d stayed home that night! If only I realized how sick he really was…

Maybe then it is easiest for me to believe that history has a meant-to-be trajectory, that things were rolling along–lumbering along–propelled by the heavy weight of all the things that came before, heading exactly to where they had to go. No course deviations possible. Or that events were guided by the hand of a higher power, making my choices and mistakes, or the choices and mistakes of those much more powerful and meaningful than I, irrelevant or inevitable.

This moment, though, will be history one day. And I have my choices right now.


My younger brother Sean, who works in Buffalo now, had texted me a picture of 29 Perkins Place, so I knew what it had to look like. The reality was somehow, though, different from the knowing.

How could the little house look so sad, so neglected? Didn’t people know that an important little bit of history happened here?

What did I want?

Maybe a plaque by the door that reads, “Here, on an ordinary workday in 1940, James met Jean, insuring that, one day, Sharon, Dennis, Michael, John, Pamela, and Sean  would come to be…”

Maybe for the house to be a cherished cottage with curtains at the windows, a freshly painted front door, children playing, a neatly mowed yard.

But that house, that neighborhood, has its own history. There are no do-overs, history-wise. (Think of the literature on that theme–de Maupassant, Stephen King, The Butterfly Effect… We firmly believe, it seems, that going in time back to undo the bad creates horrible repercussions, and that history is not a thing to be messed about.) The shuttered windows do not detract from the truth: an event happened once, in that sad and shabby house, that made my being possible.

Maybe it could have been different, the moment skewed differently, and the whole existence of myself and my siblings thrown into jeopardy.

Maybe that moment of meeting was graven in time, meant to be, written by a celestial hand.

Chance or fate–the what-ifs behind the history–do not matter. Unchangeable, events have brought me to this now, this time when my choices are important, when my actions can be done or left undone, when a word can be swallowed or spoken. In the messy, mutable now, we may be encountering things that are fated, but we still have the choice of how we’ll react. And how, then, we’ll shape history.


It fascinates–the chance, the happenstance, the slipperiness of history. What if, what if, what if…

But if I dive too deeply down that rabbit hole, I just may detract from now. I’ll deal with the effects,–wonderful, tragic, and all shades in between,–with which my history pummels me. And I’ll pray, and work, and angle for the mindfulness to fully live my now.